Friday, January 4, 2013

From the Archives: Magal Teaser and the Road Trip from Hell

From the Archives: I am starting a new series, "From the Archives." Before starting this blog, I had another travel blog (actually, two) devoted to chronicling my travels and adventures in Senegal and elsewhere. These blogs were targeted at family and friends, but I will be reposting some of these entries every now and again. Its always fun for me to read and see how my perspective on life here has changed... or not, over the past 2.5 years. I hope you enjoy!

This first post is from a religious pilgrimage I took part in with Senegalese friends two years ago.  The same pilgrimage took place this past weekend, so I thought this would be a good time to share my experience and reflect on what I can most definitely say was the most grueling and yet most rewarding travel experience ever (and that is saying a lot!). I included some new details on the trip itself and especially wanted to share the photographs that were my reward for the world's worst road trip.

Magal Teaser, and the Road Trip from Hell
February 3, 2011

Two weeks ago I went to Touba, the Mouride brotherhood's holy city in Senegal, for le Grand Magal -- their yearly pilgrimage. I intend to write a lengthy post with lots of details, but in the mean time I thought I would post some pictures from the trip.... we went to the mosque at sunrise so I got some really beautiful pictures. Enjoy!

Yes, the road trip from hell really was worth it.

But first, a present day interjection: Two years later and this pilgrimage still garners first place in terms of most horrific travel experiences -- they call it a pilgrimage for a reason! Normally it takes 2-3 hours to drive to Touba from Dakar. As mentioned on the Wikipedia page, Magal attracts millions of Senegalese, so obviously the roads are not at their normal level of already horrific traffic getting out of the city. I had to work the day we left (the eve of the actual event), so we planned to leave around 7pm, hoping to arrive in the night/early morning depending on traffic.

At around 5pm, we took a taxi to Rufisque, a suburb of Dakar on the way out of the city, to meet up with a cousin with whom we were traveling. This took an hour. When we arrived she wasn't ready so we sat around for another hour while she finished packing, but we had plenty of time before our bus, scheduled for 7pm.

With suitcases in tow, we walked to the house of the woman organizing the bus, in the dark on sandy streets in a somewhat questionable neighborhood (but most Dakar neighborhoods look questionable in the dark, whether or not they are). The power was out in the area so it was pitch black. It was also pitch black at the woman's house. She informed us the bus was running late so we could wait with some other passengers in her living room.

At this point it was after 7pm. We sat in that pitch black, stiflingly hot living room until midnight doing nothing--besides people speaking Wolof and me almost going mad in the process (5 hours of nothing!). We finally got word the bus was nearing the neighborhood and rushed out of the house with our suitcases, running down the street to meet it in time. As we approached, we were joined by 20-30 other people planning on taking the same bus. The bus rolled in completely full.


Somehow, most of the crowd managed to squeeze in the coach bus, and the driver/bus-worker tried to convince us to sit on a mattress in the aisle/stairwell of the bus. No matter how desperate we were to leave, we all agreed this was not a safe option and so the bus left without us. It was 1am, and we'd been on the road (or trying to be on the road) since 5pm already (8 hours).

At this point, we had no option but to wander the streets hoping to find another bus that could take us. Car rapides drove by on their way but they are at the bottom of the bus totem pole--bad conditions and extremely uncomfortable--so we passed. We found a city bus parked on the side of the road with a sleeping chauffeur and so we sat in the bus and waited/napped/despaired, as mosquitos devoured us alive for nearly an hour. Let's recall I had worked all day and was dying of exhaustion.

A car rapide on a sunny day in Dakar. This was not the kind of bus we wanted to take for the arduous journey to Touba.
FINALLY, a decent looking bus stopped near us (not a coach bus, but not a car rapide). Though it didn't look particularly comfortable, we were desperate and it was 2am, so we got on board. Low and behold, there was a wooden bench in the aisle and two people in our group had no choice but to accept these god forsaken seats with no cushion or back. I could, and probably should, have offered to sit in the aisle, but I don't think I would have survived the trip if I had!

So, at 2am we were finally on our way! Except. Except, the traffic was so terrible getting out of Dakar that we were literally parked (engine off) on the high way for 3 hours. THREE HOURS!! At this point, I wanted to get out and walk but I got some crazy looks for that suggestion. So instead, we sat in the pitch black, unmoving, being devoured by mosquitoes, and inhaling the exhaust fumes from the larger trucks and buses around us. It was hell on earth.

The sun rose and the traffic started to move--slowly, but it was moving. The bottle neck to get out of the city inched forward. The women on the bench groaned (understandably), people grew impatient. The elderly and babies shifted in their seats, but no one got out to stretch or pee or anything! The bus was so full, I would lean forward to rest my head on my hands and the space behind me would fill with someone from the aisle or the person sitting behind me leaning over for more space. A little girl behind me had a cold and kept sneezing into the back of my head and touching my hair with her snotty hands. The woman in the aisle next to me would lean on my shoulder to sleep. To cope with a growing sense of dread and claustrophobia, I thought back to my surgery and how I passed the hours of excruciating discomfort counting down and constantly reminding myself this was one day in the course of my life. Really! Remembering how I managed that pain is what kept me from screaming at the top of my lungs. And finally, traffic really began to advance.

Now our driver got so excited at the opportunity to actually move forward that he decided to drive recklessly fast on a dirt road next to the high way. He took one turn so fast, our bus almost tipped over and the entire bus screamed. It was terrifying and I basically saw my life flash before my eyes. Everyone yelled incredulous insults and reproaches at the driver to be more careful and he drove safely for the rest of the way, but it was still very sobering.

And we finally, finally, FINALLY arrived in Touba at 12pm, 10 hours after leaving Dakar (supposed to be a 2 hour drive), and 17 hours after we were supposed to leave. We arrived at the house and I slept for hours and did nothing of use all day. But the next morning, the following pictures were taken and I can definitely say the trek was worth it! Not to mention the drive home was comfortable and completely uneventful. ALHAMDOULILAH!

Vendors selling religious memorabilia outside the mosque. 

The lines were quite astounding, even at 6am.

I was allowed in the mosque as long as I wore appropriate apparel covering my head, shoulders, and legs.

Preparing the grand feast for a VERY large household of guests and family.

Matching outfits :)
Religious street art honoring the founder of Mouridisme.

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